Death Parade has been a surprise hit for me this season, though I suppose it shouldn’t have been a surprise since I loved Death Billiards (shame on me for not realizing before the air-date that they were related!). While entirely different from Mushishi, Death Parade manages to evoke some sort of deeper, emotional response featuring a different cast of characters and set of situations each episode. While most of these have been great, I’d like to rewind just a couple weeks to episode 4: “Death Arcade”.
I’m going to take a shot at writing as transparently as I can for this article.
If you have been following my column and my other writing, you may also be aware that emotions are an area of active struggle for me. While I have become much more consistent and well-grounded in the last few years, thanks primarily to a focus on my faith and, consequently, confidence in my existential beliefs (I feel like I at least have a basic grasp of why I exist and how that effects both my present and future existence!), I still encounter moments of mood swings and frustration.
As of writing, just this morning I had a lengthy text conversation with Charles (TWWK) about something that had been eating away at me for the past few months and just came to a head today. In a situation that can best be described as nothing more than a first-world problem (though still an incredibly discouraging one!), I found myself utterly depressed, unmotivated, and a shell of my former upbeat self. For a short time, every piece of good news I heard felt tempered and every piece of bad news felt magnified. Sitting in a public restroom and on my phone, I finally just broke down.
Now that I have recovered from that very short experience, let’s take a look at the episode of Death Parade in question and then rewind to my life just a few years ago…
Yousuke, one of the two main characters of episode 4, seems to be a decent fellow in the beginning of the episode. In fact, as the arcade game reveals, the worst we can seem to draw from his life is that he is self-conscious of being considered an otaku (much less tolerated in Japan than it is in the United States considering the far different implications for the term). However, the story doesn’t end there. Several flashbacks later, we learn that Yousuke suffered with depression for much of his life, either begun or amplified by his parents’ quarrels and their ultimate divorce.
However, at least in what we are shown, it seems that Yousuke ultimately ends up in a healthy environment… or at least as healthy as one can be considering the post-divorce situation. His new stepmother is a kind, loving woman, and his new family seems to be relatively stable. In fact, if anything, his stepmother seems to highly value her relationship with her new stepson. Before the end of the episode, we discover that her final wish before Yousuke’s death was for him to call her mom. It’s a powerful scene, and one that truly exemplifies the love that can come alongside the concept of adoption, whether it is biblical, divine adoption, or human, loving adoption. But I digress.
Fully aware of this situation, what did Yousuke do? Frustrated with the “pointlessness” of his solitary life, holed up in his room on his computer in the dark, he gave up and jumped out his bedroom window. He committed suicide.
Let’s move beyond Death Parade for a moment as I confess a bit of my own past.
Back in 2012, I suffered in a way much similar to Yousuke. Several years before that, I experienced some significant transitions in my life, including the simultaneous upheaval of much that had created a sense of consistency. My church, which my father pastored for nearly my entire life, dissolved. My house was purchased by a railroad company. My parents began working longer hours as my older brothers became more independent post-college. A few of my best friends moved away (a trend that seemed, at least to me, far too common). I began to feel the stress of competitive music competitions through the public school system. All in all, my life simply became something entirely different. Not bad (in fact, many of the situations I just listed were, at least on paper, objective improvements!), just different. But I was unused to it, and so experiencing many changes at once made it difficult to cope.
Through all of this, unlike in Yousuke’s situation, I had a stable family. My parents had and still have a strong marriage, and both showed me the healthy love and affection that many children in broken homes might envy. But much like with Yousuke and his stepmother, it was something I took for granted.
Seeing only the bad and the unfamiliar in my life, I sunk into a depression that rose and fell, trending deeper and deeper as time went on. By the time I attended my first semester of college in 2012, I was unsure of my beliefs, leaning more toward agnosticism with thoughts of atheism than Christianity, and I was experiencing thoughts of suicide. “How much better would it be if I just didn’t have to deal with these problems anymore,” I thought. Crossing a bridge over a busy highway on campus became a terrifying experience as I couldn’t tell if I would be able to hold myself back from jumping.
Now would be the appropriate time to say, “Then I decided to pick up my Bible. That same night, I got on my knees and gave my life to Jesus and never experienced doubt again,” but in my experience, that either doesn’t happen or it is extremely localized. I spoke to many friends and mentors, Christian and not. The former pointed me to prayer and the Bible, along with kind words, while the latter provided general encouragement. I broke down during most of these conversations, I prayed, and I asked God why I felt the way I felt.
I thank all of the people who positively influenced me during this time, but it was only after significant counseling, medication, and a life re-evaluation (that included my spiritual beliefs!) that I began to make a recovery… a recovery that took many months of slow mood improvement and, as my anecdote at the top of the article can attest, sometimes seems to have not fully completed (though I suspect nobody if fully “healed” of depression).
Needless to say, having experienced this myself, Yousuke’s situation hit me hard.
“Why did I kill myself?” he asks, crying.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t cry with him just a little bit.
“Why did I want to kill myself?” I reflected. “Why would someone like Yousuke, someone like me, choose to do something literally irreversible?”
So what makes the two of us so different? This may seem obvious, but the primary difference, minus the fact that I am real and he is not, I am a human being and he is a character, is that I did not choose death. Call it fear and weakness, call it subconscious strength, call it human instinct, or call it the will of God, I did not kill myself. And I thank God for that because that is what gives me the ability to reflect on Yousuke’s condition.
We see in the end of the episode, at perhaps the most heart-wrenching moment of any anime this season, that Yousuke is sent to “Heaven” or reincarnation, while his opponent (who similarly suffered) is sent to “Hell” or annihilation. This is not the place to describe the theological significance of this decision, for it really doesn’t matter in the context of this article. Yousuke’s soul may still live on, but he still chose death. His loving stepmother would grieve for him and the fact that she was unable to lovingly connect, and there is not a single thing he can do about it.
I look back now, and I ask much the same questions that Yousuke did.
But I have the benefit of being able ask that question, and using my experience to live better.
I apologize for being so serious and so long-winded this week, so I thank you for reading through to the end. If you have not seen episode 4 of Death Parade, I highly recommend it. It really is a harrowing analysis of the human condition. If you have any emotional or relational ties with the concept of suicide, prepare to shed some tears. But beyond those tears, I implore you to use this narrative to gain a whole new perspective on what it means to endure emotional pain… because you neither want to be the one asking “Why?” for the sake of someone else, nor be unable to answer the question because you gave up on it for the sake of yourself.